As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Tom Mead and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Tom on the players.
Checking out the Buffalo Bills’ defense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Bills’ Run Defense
Last season, the Bills’ run defense was poor, 26th in yards per carry allowed. But it’s worth pointing out the team added a pair of defensive lineman with their first two picks in Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham. The former is more of a pass rusher with the latter more of a versatile, stronger, well-rounded player.
Based off what they showed in their tune-up game against Green Bay, Buffalo will run a 4-3 defense. It’s been a little hybrid in the past but looks more static this year. Although Rousseau is a plus athlete who sometimes stands up.
He’ll be the LDE, seeing plenty of Chukwuma Okorafor this week.
Anyway, back to the run defense. Far from the end-all stat, the Bills have among two of the most active tacklers in the NFL: LB Tremaine Edmunds and S Jordan Poyer.
Over the past three years, Edmunds has 355 tackles, 12th most of any player in the league. Poyer has 331 tackles, 15th most of anyone, and the most of any safety/defensive back in the NFL. Poyer has had three straight seasons of 100+ tackles. Couldn’t quite pull up the data but I’m not sure who the last DB to do that was. Those guys are active, especially in the run game (Edmunds 71 run tackles, Poyer 63).
From what I saw against Green Bay, the Bills are an explosive, attacking defensive line. They do a great job of getting vertical and getting penetration in the backfield. Spilling runs and forcing them to the outside. This photo shows it well.
Zone schemes and gap runs with pullers could be tough to do. Bills will do their best to split gaps and blow runs up. It’ll be a big test for this brand new offensive line.
Some other stats. Bills’ defense forced the third most turnovers last season, 26 takeaways. They allowed 57 runs of 10+ yards, almost bottom third in the league. And while their third down defense overall was just about average, they’ve held Pittsburgh to 26% on third down over their last two meetings.
Bills’ Pass Defense
Buffalo had 38 sacks a season ago, which ran about middle of the pack. But they didn’t have a defined pass rusher. No Bill had more than five and only two defensive lineman had more than 3.5. So they brought in Rousseau and Basham as reinforcements.
Watching the Packers’ game, the Bills’ d-line was jump. Really trying to jump the snap count. Three times in the first half were they called for a neutral zone infraction/offsides. Once by Rousseau, once by Jerry Hughes, once by Ed Oliver. It’ll be tougher on the road but if Roethlisberger can utilize the hard count a couple times, he should get these guys to jump at least once. And have a chance for a free play deep.
This secondary remains largely intact. Tre White is a shutdown, #1 corner with three interceptions a year ago. A couple of small school guys have stepped up for them including Taron Johnson, who pick-sixed Roethlisberger last season, and Siran Neal, who impressed me this preseason. Big, physical slot guy. All these guys play the run well and can cover.
Buffalo didn’t blitz much in the preseason. But it is the preseason and last season, they were top ten in blitz rate. Young guys like Rousseau might tip things off. Watch him here. He takes a half-step back and aligns off-ball, slanting inside as the WILL linebacker blitzes to the outside. A small key that may tip off the Steelers.
In coverage, it was hard to get a feel for what they were running based on TV tape. I’ll say this though. Be awfully careful in the red zone/goal line. Bills had one end zone INT, Micah Hyde covering ground, and nearly had a second on a cross-body throw by Jordan Love. Those kinds of mistakes are less of a concern for a vet like Ben Roethlisberger but still, be careful.
They also play more two-high than a lot of teams. Way to attack that is two-mold. Middle of the field (it helps Buffalo they have a freak LB like Edmunds running the deep middle) and running the ball against lighter boxes.
Tom’s Individual Report
On the road against the Buffalo Bills is a daunting way for any team to start a new season especially for a team with a new offensive coordinator and new and inexperienced offensive line. Buffalo has key playmakers on every level and will provide a substantial test for the Steelers to open the season. The team has built a wonderful balance of veterans and youth and look to improve a pass rush that finished in the middle of the pack in sacks in 2020 and a run defense that was also ranked in the middle of the pack allowing 4.6 yards per carry and 21 touchdowns.
This is the strength of the Bills defense and may be one of the toughest the Steelers will face this season. This group has some faces that weren’t with the team last year and they are deep, they have quickness and are very good across the board when it comes to play strength.
Jerry Hughes (55) is entering season number 12 and will be a mentor for the young pass rushers on the roster. He plays primarily on the left side and is a good pass rusher who uses his hands well and wins with speed most often. Ed Oliver (91) is a tad undersized by makes up for it with explosiveness as the 3T. Entering his third year in the league he has a good motor, play strength and quickness to split blockers and wreak havoc in the backfield or get after the quarterback.
The starters get a veteran boost from Star Lotulelei (98) who opted out in 2020 and is back to play the 1T. The 32 year old veteran who is a two down defensive tackle adept at eating up double team blocks clearing the way for the linebackers to make plays. Mario Addison (97) has blossomed late in his career and lines up mostly on the right side and is a consistent defender stacking against the run on the edge and when getting after the quarterback. He has 44 sacks over the last five seasons.
Back to back plays by Oliver. One stuffing the run and the other pressuring the QB with Addison.
The depth is full of guys that could be starters on many teams. Greg Rousseau (50) was a first round pick this season and has good length and play strength. He plays with his eyes in the backfield, is solid shedding block and a good motor. He’ll add some juice to their pass rush. First thought on Justin Zimmer (61) is motor, motor, motor. He chases everywhere and can play the 1 or 3 T plays with good pad level and power to drive back offensive line. Vernon Butler (94) played in place of Lotulelei in 2020 and fits the same mold using play strength and active hands to control blockers. Harrison Phillips (99) is another high motor, stout run defender who plays with good aggressiveness and balance and gets hands up in passing lanes.
A.J. Epenesa (57) could form a good future pass rush tandem with Rousseau and is an effective power rusher. He gets off the blocks quick, has disruptive hands and has the strength and technique to set the edge versus the run. Boogie Basham (96) is another rookie with tons of potential. He has quickness, heavy hands and will utilize spin moves in his pass rush plan. He fits as a player who can play on the edge on early downs and kick inside on passing downs. Efe Obada (93) comes over from Carolina where he had a career high 5.5 sacks last season. He’s the first player from the NFL’s International Pathway Program to make a 53 man roster and can play inside or outside.
Epenesa running over the left tackle for the sack fumble.
The Bills play in a 4-2-5 nickel defense and utilize only two linebackers most of the time. Tremaine Edmunds (49) plays the MIKE linebacker. He has very good athleticism playing sideline to sideline, is a strong tackler, will knife through gaps into the backfield or even off rush off the edge at times. Matt Milano (59) is the WILL linebacker and dealt with some injuries last season. He plays with good aggressiveness and will disrupt plays by shooting gaps or taking on lead blocks and attacks as a blitzer. He is also strong in coverage.
Milano reading the play and getting downhill for the stop
The reserves include Tyrel Dodson (53) who plays with good physicality with strong hands. He can diagnose and move quickly in the first phase, but struggles to adjust to blocks consistently. A.J. Klein (54) is entering his ninth season and filled in last season for Milano. He is a well prepared veteran who reads his keys well and plays downhill. Familiar face Tyler Matakevich (44) is a player we all know and provides depth inside, is a strong tackler and mental processor while continuing to be a strong performer on special teams.
Tre’Davious White (27) is their best corner. He excels in Man coverage, has good length, likes to disrupt routes with his hands and will attack any ball in his vicinity. Whomever he covers will have a difficult game. Levi Wallace (39) starts opposite of White and is better playing Zone coverage where he can play facing the QB. He has adequate play strength in coverage, is an adequate tackler is also used to blitz from the outside. Taron Johnson (24) is the nickel corner who is active against the run and is a good tackler and does his best to hang in against bigger physical receivers improving in coverage during the season and had a pick six vs Pittsburgh in 2020. He was all over the place making plays in the AFC Championship game versus the Chiefs.
The depth in this group is young but with potential. Former University of Pittsburgh player Dane Jackson (30) had consistent ball production in the ACC, plays with good physicality and hand fighting showing instincts and ball skills in his 193 defensive snaps in his rookie year. Siran Neal (33) has good size and is a physical player who plays a lot on special teams and will also play in the slot. They also have two rookies on the practice squad that could be elevated including Rachad Wildgoose(32) who plays with physicality throughout the route, adequate foot agility near LOS and disrupts the catch area and Olajiah Griffin (37) who has good feet and plays the ball well.
The starting safeties are interchangeable and will line up all over the place. Jordan Poyer (21) is physical applying the big hit when he can, a solid tackler and good near LOS. Poyer is the strong safety and will fill gaps versus the run, is also a good tackler and will blitz from the slot. Micah Hyde (23) is the free safety and a key player making sure defenders are on the same page and he has solid range and is a very good tackler.
Hyde coming down to fill the gap against the run.
The backup safeties include another former Pitt Panther, Damar Hamlin (31). He has size and length but is missing the speed. He has adequate ball skills and solid ball production, plays with good aggressiveness and is a willing tackler in run support. Jaquan Johnson (46) isn’t that big but likes to throw his weight around and is a solid tackler.